By Steven Hill, Al Jazeera, August 15, 2012
Washington, DC – The ongoing “reality TV” of the US presidential election continues, with the latest episode revealing the selection by Mitt Romney of US Representative Paul Ryan as his vice-presidential running mate. The national punditry in the US seems to be undecided if this was a good pick for Romney, but more important is what the pick reveals about Romney’s campaign strategy: Scorched earth, all the way.
Most pundits seem to think that Romney needed to make a pick that re-energised a sagging campaign – and there’s no doubt that Rep Ryan’s selection has done that, since he is a favourite of the Tea Party wing of the GOP, which is the most activist-oriented and has been lukewarm on Romney. The Romney-Ryan duo hit the campaign trail immediately, drawing huge and newly electrified crowds. Within 24 hours of Ryan’s joining the ticket, the Romney campaign raked in $3.5 million in online donations.
Interestingly, hardcore Democrats seem to be as excited over the Ryan selection as hardcore Republicans. That’s because Rep. Ryan is best known as the GOP architect of US-style austerity. As the US House Budget Committee chairman, he has championed deep spending cuts, including to Medicare, which is the US equivalent of national health insurance for seniors 65 years and older. While some have praised Ryan’s courage for being willing to take on long-sacred programmes, others can’t help but note that Ryan’s “courage” is usually targeted at the most vulnerable: seniors, the poor, the disadvantaged.
Especially in key battleground states like Florida, where there are a lot of seniors who rely on and support Medicare, many pundits are predicting that ultimately Rep. Ryan is going to hurt the GOP ticket. Democrats will be able to portray Ryan as someone who not only wants to slash Medicare, but also to reduce tax rates on the wealthy and enact an austerity budget that would serve to devastate working Americans while padding the pockets of the rich. Romney already had been vulnerable to being portrayed as an out of touch patrician and former hedge fund manager who had sold off companies and killed people’s jobs. Rep. Ryan’s reputation will likely add to this perception.
On the other hand, Ryan will help the Romney ticket in Ryan’s home-state of Wisconsin, which is a mid-sized battleground state, as well as in some other battleground states where Tea Party activists will now be far more energised and mobilised than they would have been for Romney alone. Don’t forget, the US presidential election is not a national contest, it is one of 50 individual states. Each state has an allotted amount of “electoral votes” that a candidate wins by capturing that state.
But most of the 50 states are solidly Democratic or Republican, so the election will come down to about 10 battleground states, with the most important of these being those with the most electoral votes – Florida, Ohio and Pennsylvania (with possibly North Carolina and Virginia also in play). If the election is extremely close in these swing states, mobilising one’s base voters to get a bump in voter turnout becomes just as effective a campaign strategy as winning over undecided swing voters.
So the selection of Paul Ryan as the vice-presidential candidate reveals much about the campaign strategy that the Romney campaign has selected as the best one to take them to the White House – that is, energise and mobilise the base, and not worry so much about swing voters. These sorts of base voters tend to “sneak under the radar” of opinion polls. They tend to be motivated by heated TV ads and campaign appeals telling them that the Democratic candidate will destroy American civilisation as we know it.
Such a “scorched earth” campaign strategy should be alarming to Democrats, since that strategy was deployed very effectively by George W Bush’s campaign strategist Karl Rove to win close battleground states Ohio and Florida in both 2000 and 2004, and ultimately the presidency. Recall “Swift Boat Veterans for Truth,” which quickly turned Democratic nominee John Kerry’s decorated military service into a liability.
That’s what the Romney campaign, which has double-loaded its shotgun barrels with wads of campaign cash, has in store for Obama. So fasten your seatbelts, this presidential election is going to be an ugly ride.
Steven Hill is a political writer, columnist and the author of Europe’s Promise: Why the European Way is the Best Hope in an Insecure Age and 10 Steps to Repair American Democracy.